Bob Silbernagel Column February 01, 2009

Reading tea leaves on the future of libraries

As the snow fell along the Animas River in Durango last Monday, I watched a blue heron glide upriver through the flakes.

My picture-postcard view came courtesy of the new Durango Public Library, which opened shortly before Christmas.

I had some time to kill that afternoon, and the friends I was visiting in Durango had raved about the new library earlier in the weekend. So, I stopped in to check it out.

Libraries can be places for peaceful reading and contemplation, as was Durango’s library when I visited last week. They also can be exciting, when you’re on the research trail and you encounter new evidence in your quest. They offer sites for education, such as literacy training, computer classes, group programs, children’s activities and more.

But my visit to Durango got me thinking about a couple of things.

First, the main branch of the Mesa County Public Library makes very good use of the space it has available, and the staff at the library have been abundantly helpful to me when I was seeking special research materials or books from out of the area. But it’s too bad the citizens of Mesa County rejected a sales-tax proposal for a new library in 2003 and 2004.

The 2004 measures were defeated by a margin of just 51 percent to 49 percent.

The new Durango Public Library was financed with a sales-tax increase approved by voters in 2005. It set aside some new revenue for open space and some for city capital projects, including the library.

Given the current economic situation, it’s unlikely voters here will approve a bond issue for a new library building any time soon. However, it turns out there are preliminary discussions under way that could lead to a new library. Library Director Eve Tallman told me those discussions involve working with the city, the county, the senior center and private investors to develop a mixed-use development that would include a new library and senior center using, in part, property the library has acquired in recent years.

I hope the idea bears fruit. A new main library building is still needed.

But no one should take this to mean library officials are sitting around, waiting for that possible project.

The main library building was remodeled in 2007 to make the space more usable, and many of the administrative functions have been moved to buildings to the east that were acquired as part of the hoped-for rebuilding.

The library has expanded or remodeled its branch locations to make them more user friendly. It held a grand opening for its new Orchard Mesa branch Jan. 24. It will partner with the city of Fruita to create a new branch library in the city’s new community center. And it is working with Palisade to develop a new branch library there.

The library’s annual “One Book, One Mesa County” reading campaign begins next month. It has teamed up with Rocky Mountain PBS to host “Community Cinema” on the second Tuesday of each month.

“We want to have a civic dialogue about our community and our country and what it is to be an American,” Tallman said.

The main library has a computer lab with 12 computers, and it has more than doubled the number of computers throughout the library available to the public. The library’s Web site lists a plethora of programs and events held at the main campus and branch libraries.

All of which prompt my second question. With all the online information, what is the future of libraries in the Internet age?

As someone who works in newspapers, where virtually everyone is asking a similar version of that question for our industry, the future of printed material and public access to them is of more than passing curiosity to me.

Google “future of libraries” and you can find a variety of answers, some encouraging and others not so much.

One expert claims the human species will be virtually illiterate by 2050, relying entirely on verbal communications on computers and through broadcast outlets for our information.

That seems a bit far-fetched to me and Tallman has evidence that it is not occurring just yet.

“There have been these messages over the past few decades, that libraries won’t exist in the future, that books won’t exist,” she said. “But that’s not happening. Our use just keeps going up, and book publishing keeps going up.”

For instance, she said, visitation at the Mesa County Public Libraries was up 14 percent last year. But check-outs of books and other materials were up 17 percent.

Not all of the newcomers are visiting the library to use the Internet, apparently.

Even so, other experts say libraries must trend more and more the way Mesa County’s already is — with computer literacy classes, online access and group programs — if they want to remain in existence.

But libraries were created as storehouses of information — as archives of printed material.

The history of our communities lives in libraries — in old newspapers, books, government documents and recorded oral histories. I hope we never abandon that.

The idea of public libraries, with books and archives easily accessible to the average citizen, is a uniquely American invention, mid-wived by the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Melvil Dewey and Andrew Carnegie.

Judging from the steady stream of people — young and old — who visited both the Durango Public Library when I was there last Monday, and the Mesa County Public Library on virtually any day just to sit and read a book or peruse a magazine, we are a long way from abandoning that notion just yet.


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